“Reconsidering who we serve, how we serve”: Museum directors talk responsibility and action [Video]

What is the role of art museums in this moment nationally and globally as we navigate a pandemic, manage economic upheaval, and grapple with racial injustice? How can museums best activate their public platforms, collections, and programs and strengthen community connections to become new spaces for dialogue, reflection, action, and impact that extend beyond their walls?

On October 14, 2020 Lisa Graziose Corrin, Ellen Philips Katz Director of Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art, spoke with museum leaders (and Northwestern alumnae) Deborah Mack ’77 MA, ’86 PhD and Martha Tedeschi ’94 PhD. The discussion focused on how museum executives are listening to their staffs and communities and leading their institutions to advocate for social change, transform teaching and learning, and advance ideas that matter in today’s world.

This special online program Museums at this Moment: Leaders on Institutional Responsibility and Action was presented by Northwestern New York, the Northwestern Alumni Association, and The Block Museum of Art

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On the art museum’s evolving role…

“I like to think of these challenges as opportunities to pivot what we do, how we do it. It’s particularly an opportunity to reconsider who we serve, and how we serve. Having to answer those questions really highlights the challenges of inherited past and what we need to do in terms of moving forward, because our audiences are also shifting in how they access us, and how and why they turn to us”

Deborah Mack

“We are inventing the path forward right now, and that’s a lot of responsibility but it’s also one that I think we’re eager to share with our constituencies. The path forward has a lot to do with the people we serve, the way we make our collections accessible, the way we invite participation…if I had to just say in three words what I think the opportunity is I would say “work on ourselves.”

Martha Tedeschi

On cultivating institutional change…

“There is the need to really put this sense of urgency into action and at the same time to be somewhat patient or you will get discouraged and overwhelmed. So that is the balance that I personally am working on, the balance between believing that patience pays off and using the urgency of the moment to harness a new kind of energy…Not every museum has to be doing all the same things. Collectively we can be moving by harnessing what we know how to do and really thinking about how we update and make our old legacies more compelling”

Martha Tedeschi

“I was trained that the raising of these issues is much larger than just within museums. It’s around issues of voice and representation and collaboration and equity, in partnership with the cultures and the societies and the communities that are the subject matter or that are displayed in these museums…These issues have been issues that I’ve dealt with my entire professional career. One of the great joys of working on the African American Museum at Smithsonian, was that I was just one of a number of people who brought these questions, concerns, issues, and objections to the creation of that museum because the Smithsonian itself was not a monolith for practice.”

Deborah Mack

On building authentic partnerships…

“There is new an opportunity in some ways to really partner on more equitable terms. When we’re talking about a partnership or collaboration and we are tossing ideas, the first thing I ask is what do our potential partners need out of the collaboration? What do they want? And we structure our agreements around that so that in a multi year scenario, there is actually strategic growth and strategic opportunity for all partners. Even though our resources are diminished at this time, there are still ways we can raise each other up.”

Deborah Mack

“We can throw around the word partnership and collaboration but there’s a lot of thinking that I do about what does that actually mean to be a partner? And what does reciprocity really mean? Personally, I think I’m, developing a willingness to learn, admit and learn from my own mistakes, which means kind of developing both a thicker and a thinner skin at the same time.”

Martha Tedeschi

On looking to the past and the future…

“I’ve found myself, interestingly not dwelling on the budget and much more dwelling on kind of issues around the idea of humanity. It’s just helpful to think about our work under the umbrella of humanity, “what’s humane?” How do we contribute to a more humane world and more just world? … You know, what is the unique role of a museum in that question? Because let’s face it I think sometimes we’re drawn to have the same mission statements or the same value statements as hospitals, or social service agencies or banks. Everyone’s appropriating a lot of the same language. But we’re not a bank and we’re not a hospital, we are a museum, we have collections we have a certain amount of expertise under our roof, we have space. What does all of that mean, in terms of what we can contribute to a more just or human world?”

Martha Tedeschi

“This work is multi-generational work and so when I am hiring, when I am mentoring, when I am recruiting, etc, I also requiring that this sort of values based approach is part and parcel of the work that happens. It is work that we model for each other and that we what we do every day. It’s not, this is not just a single lap or a race, its more than a marathon even. This is multi-generational work. I inherited the African American Museum field, shall I say, because of the civil rights movement, that led to the Black Power Movement, that led to the Black Studies Movement and that led to the Black Museum Movement. There must be a very clear awareness of that multi generational legacy. Our role is to continue that and it’s become actually in many ways more focused on the generations to come.”

Deborah Mack

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